A recent trip to Dufferin Mall’s Creepers outlet reveals that cultural stereotypes are still up for sale in downtown Toronto.
Halloween in North America has—as vintage costumes, photography, and advertisements attest—always inspired a precarious flirtation with cultural and racial stereotypes. In art historian Phyllis Galembo’s Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes & Masquerade, you’ll find several antiquated examples of blackface masks dating back to the 1920s, as well as other plastic facades such as “Asian Princess” that were produced in the ’60s. (That said, those with an enduring proclivity for high-stakes social ineptitude can still buy a “Fee Ling Yu Asian Man Halloween Mask” on Amazon.) Cultural historian David J. Skal echoes the unease in his book, Death Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, when he suggests that “most Halloween depictions of blacks are obviously intended for white audiences, and relied heavily on a blatantly negative stereotype.”
Obviously, this isn’t news to most of us. If we had a Ouija board to converse with a spirit or two from those bygone times, they might say something like “meh, it was the era, bro—that’s just how we rolled back then.” But go ahead and Google “Racist Halloween 2011” and you can read all about a group of American students who, just last year, were advised to reconsider dressing up in blackface or as geishas, prompting an online crusade titled “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” in direct response.
Maybe that sort of thing is par for the course in Ohio, but what about in an enlightened, culturally diverse city like Toronto?
Over at Dufferin Mall, below the recently shuttered Boston Pizza, is Creepers, “Canada’s Creepiest Halloween Superstore,” a temporary retail outlet dedicated to costumes, props, fake blood, and itchy wigs. It’s cavernous. “Thriller” plays over the PA, and most costumes on sale are innocuous, hyper-sexualized, or both. (Sexy Santa? Really?) It’s everything you’d expect from a Halloween store.
There are, however, occasional costumes and accessories that raise an eyebrow or two. Beside the sexy-cowboy costumes, you’ll find sexy Aboriginal costumes with names like “Reservation Royalty” and “Chief Wansum Tail.” Beside the doofus-sized Old Milwaukee beer-can costume, a bumbling-suicide bomber-turned-skeleton wearing a headwrap named “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” beckons. Up front near the cashier, there’s an entire row of ghetto-fabulous accessories, including a “girlfriend” hat-and-wig combo.
One could certainly argue that, in a downtown-Toronto mall with an exceedingly diverse customer base, in the year 2012, costumes like these are, well, kind of messed up.
If you’re unsure about why thrusting your cleavage up through the plastic beadwork of the Reservation Royalty get-up is problematic, Aboriginal-arts advocate and college instructor Kerry Potts can explain: ”I think wearing the costume is like saying, ‘We don’t know you, but we might want to have sex with you if you aren’t too dark-skinned and have a bum I can bounce a quarter off of,” she says. “I’m not sure Toronto has a collective attitude about Aboriginal people, because it’s such a diverse city, but knowing these costumes are in every costume store in Toronto makes my head hurt—I know I’m going to want to talk to each person and ask why they’re dressed like that, and then hear about Sparkle-whatever-horse.”
An attempted conversation with Creepers’ store manager yields a terse response. She didn’t feel comfortable discussing the perceived insensitivity of these costumes and, after a phone consultation with her “boss” at head office, the official stance was that Creepers didn’t want to comment on these products because “it would generate negative publicity.”
This isn’t a witch hunt, though. If anything, the question remains (based on the retailer’s maxim that supply is dictated by demand): Who is actually buying these costumes? How many people are actually walking into Halloween shops right this minute and asking, “Do you have any more of those terrorist-skeleton-headwrap getups? Too funny, bro!” Or, at a party, if you were to ask the girl in a curly wig/hat combo about the look she’s trying to achieve, would she say, “Oh, you know, just trying to nail that whole zany girlfriend-from-the-projects thing”?
Reliably, the argument surrounding political correctness and Halloween costuming will continue as it has. Knee-jerk reactions may come from both sides of the coin. (“Everything’s offensive!” vs. “shut up and let them dress how they want to.”) But these latest examples from Creepers are reason enough to pose a final question: Do antagonistic costumes like these belong in Toronto?